Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation, And the Making of Me

As many of you probably know, I'm a graduate student.  And I'm in my last semester, in the process of writing my thesis.  It's coming along ok and it's an interesting change of pace having only this one thing to work on for once, a first in my academic career.  Anywho, over the winter break in prepping for this project I kept being bothered by some very personal reflections that demanded to be written down.  Who am I to argue with my subconscious?  So I wrote them down.  That is what follows.  It's, yeah, very personal, and will be reworked before it's printed up in my thesis pages, but I thought I might as well share it with you in it's initial form to give you a taste of what I'm thinking about lately and why so many of my posts are reposts, links and action alerts.

How did you become the person you are today? This is a question that has been haunting me for the past few years. It is a question that is probably unanswerable, as the events which shape my life slip in and out of what I consciously remember and bubble somewhere beneath the surface of that memory, ready to emerge at (in)opportune moments.

The roots of this question lie in another question, one that all feminist scholars are at some point initiated into: nature, or nurture? Essentialism, or constructivism? I take for granted my own conclusion that we are some combination of both, where what is essential about us can probably never be proved, but where we can trace some of the elements we have taken into ourselves and allowed to change us.

A search for those elements in myself, to better understand myself, my perspective on the world, my attractions, my insecurities, my place and function in the world around me led me back intuitively to television. And not just to television, but to very specific television, to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

There are other places I could have landed.  Books I read and re-read like Pollyanna or A Little Princess or the American Girls series' or The Hardy Boys.  I could have gone back to other shows I watched religiously as a child like The Wonder Years or The X-Men or Boy Meets World, or later The X-Files (and indeed The X-Files almost ended up in this project as well).  Or it could have been films I loved like Star Wars or Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid.   Or the music I spent hours upon hours in my room memorizing the lyrics to and in fact still listen to like Green Day or Garbage or Alanis Morissette.  But even as I have thought on all the ways I learned to be who I am today, none has quite the resonance of The Next Generation.

Still, I could easily write another thesis on the complexities of the Disney movies I watched, on the femininity played out there that I adored from afar and felt like an impostor trying to embody, on the years I spent trying to embody it anyway and hating myself and other women for its limitations and my failure to live up to it as the less than graceful tomboy I was and am. But, that is not where I landed in my search. And as I have thought on it, much of these same things were represented on The Next Generation (TNG) too, and in fact they seem to have lodged themselves much deeper in my psyche by virtue of being so.

Perhaps that is because, as I remember it anyway, the watching of TNG was a family event. My Mom didn't care for the show, but my Dad, brother, and I all loved it, and sat down once a week for nearly the whole seven seasons to watch it together. One vivid memory is of my little brother and I flinging ourselves to the sides of the television set as the Enterprise zoomed diagonally across the screen over and over during the now iconic opening credits. I remember us laughing as we pretended the Enterprise might come out of the screen and run us over if we didn't get out of the way. Looking back on it, this moment illustrates well just how real these characters and events were to me, even as I knew they were fiction. No wonder then, that on re-watching the series I would discover such moments as Captain Picard expressing a perspective on knowledge and education that I have long held as my own (“Samaritan Snare”). It is this viewpoint that led me on the educational journey now culminating in this project.

And the fact is that I was often not well-liked as a child. I was a loud mouth. Opinionated. Quick witted. Stubborn. Knowledgeable. Not quite feminine enough to be a "real" girl and not butch enough to really be "one of the guys." I saw other tomboys I knew assimilate into masculine culture through sports, but the truth was I'd rather go hiking or read a book than play football or basketball, so that was never a path that worked for me. But I got along well enough for a time.  In third grade I had two very good female friends.  I don't remember if we were actually popular, or just full of ourselves, but we certainly thought we were hot shit. That is the last time I remember feeling truly confident about myself.

A bit of context to the next part: I had been held back in kindergarten because the teachers thought I wouldn't be able to "sit still" in first grade.  I talked too much and had a hard time working within their understanding of the rules.  By second grade I was chomping at the bit, totally unchallenged, bored to death and thus speeding through my work and talking through the rest of class.  I ended up spending most days sitting in front of the Principal's office across the hall because the teacher just couldn't deal with me. (Yes, I learned early that "authority" in general was not my friend).

When I got to third grade, my new teacher knew precisely what was going on and recommended I be skipped to the next grade. While this was a great thing in some ways, socially it was a disaster. The recess yard of my elementary school was divided, with fourth graders getting the "upper yard." As a result I was separated from my friends. At first we spent our free time at the border of the two yards chatting and talking, but over time the administration encouraged us to go our separate ways and we reluctantly obeyed.

Fortunately for me I had one friend who was older and through this experience we became best friends. Unfortunately for me, there were bullies with an eye out for me in these upper grades too. I remember vividly being called "a slut" for the first time in the lunchroom. I didn't really know what it meant, but it was clear to me that this was a gendered insult, one which people would sneer at me for. I was not at all emotionally ready to defend myself against this sort of attack. What made it worse is that the ringleaders of this group of older boys lived across the street from my home. Quite frankly, I am still dealing with the effects of the emotional abuse laid on me from that year and the next.

The point of this digression is to demonstrate how and why the stories and fictional characters I watched became so real to me. I developed an elaborate fantasy life where I was able to be confident and competent, where I could fleetingly believe myself capable of joining Starfleet, of traveling the stars and saving the day. The truth is, I still deal with the characters of shows I watch more as real people than as fictional characters constructed to fit a storyline (as do so many fans, if arguments over those characters online is any indication). And while I have come to recognize some of the ways writers/directors/producers manipulate their stories and visual representations of them, this “relationship” to characters is still my foundation.


One of the representational choices made by writers/directors/producers of The Next Generation was to shoot Marina Sirtis, who played Counselor Deanna Troi, in a way that constantly emphasized her beauty.  Looking at it now with my more critical eyes their techniques are almost hokey, and clearly reminiscent of the stylistic conventions of classic Hollywood cinema and the original Star Trek. But however hokey it is and was, I took an important lesson away from this presentation: it is very important for women to be beautiful at all times. Now, this perspective is hardly unique to the Star Trek universe, and this message was surely gleaned from many sources over time. Nonetheless I trace my conscious absorption of it to the representation of this character, and similarly trace the beginning of my self-conscious attempts to embody a specific standard of beauty at all times to those representations.

It is also to this moment that I trace the origin of the "split in two" consciousness John Berger talks about in Ways of Seeing, wherein a woman's consciousness is constantly split into two: the person actually living her life and the person watching herself live her life (46). This has long been something I almost unconsciously do, and the detached, watching self is constantly evaluating the beauty of my moving and active self. For the longest time I thought this self-watching was just a self-centered eccentricity of mine; imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a phenomenon already known to cultural studies scholars like Berger.

In watching TNG I also learned that men are the real active subjects of stories (and thus, life) and that the professed equality of women in Earth society and the Federation at large still required that men reliably save the day. This was demonstrated time and again in the way Troi was incessantly the damsel in distress, Dr. Crusher persistently a nagging presence in the background and Tasha Yar thrown in the refrigerator for the plot development of the central male characters at the end of season one. Like so many women in refrigerators before her, Yar's demise reads as punishment for being tough and in a "man's job" (Chief of Security). Such were the role models presented to me as those I should, as a self-identified girl assigned the sex of female at birth, identify with.

My response was a jumble. I loved and hated Troi, begrudgingly respected Crusher, hated Yar and ultimately looked up to Picard as the hero of the show. The representation of a man who I could at best hope to be the romantic partner of (being a heterosexual woman) but could never actually BE.  But knowing that this is all I could expect to receive from the world I began to model myself after who I identified as the most desirable of the three TNG women: Counselor Deanna Troi. I learned to accentuate my breasts through my dress. To makeup my eyes with dark, smoky shadow and liner. To swing my strikingly similar wide Latina hips as I walked. And I learned the importance of eye contact in flirting. I practiced my empathic skills, listening to what my emotions told me about people and situations, and learning to trust them. And I dreamed of the man who would save me from my fucked up life, just in the nick of time...

In retrospect, the power of social norms to influence what we think and feel cannot be ignored in my choice to identify with this character over the other choices presented to me. Surely Chief of Security Tasha Yar was (by the standards of 1980s radical feminism) the ideal of who I should, as a little tomboy girl, be looking up to. Yet I remember finding her ridiculous at the time. And I remember this perspective being largely backed up by my friends who also watched the show. There is a faint tickle at the back of my mind that perhaps my Dad defended Yar's character on occasion, but no firm memory of it. Whatever the facts of this personal history are, from the very first episode it seemed to me that Lt. Worf, tall, muscular, intimidating and gruff, made a much more logical chief of security over this thin, blond woman.  She was too angry, see seemed irrational and her competence questionable.  I never really accepted her in the role and was happy when her character was killed at the end of the first season, to be replaced by, who else?  Lt. Worf.

On re-watch, of course, it was plain that the writing of TNG undermined Tasha Yar's character from the outset, even as they also put her in a position of authority. Similarly, as much as the diegetic narrative was explicit in its assertion that "women can do anything men can do," this assertion was clearly a struggle for the writers and producers to put into practice. In trying to imagine a future where equality between men and women was the norm, the sexism of the current day was made plain, and just in case there was any doubt about the unsuitability of women for "men's work" (like security) Yar was "refrigeratored" by the end of the season, providing Picard, Worf, and Data with plenty of emotional angst (or something akin to it in Data's case) for a number of story lines over the next few seasons.

In contrast, Deanna Troi's character went through several positive developments over those same seasons, ultimately becoming a bridge officer and attaining the rank of Commander (one step below Captain). Of course, to achieve this, her character was submitted to numerous degrading storylines, including frequent "mind invasion" (read: rape) due to her empathic and semi-telepathic racial abilities.  Further, Troi and Crusher's more normative femininity was rewarded, Yar's more queer femininity punished. No wonder, then, that I would latch onto Troi as my own model of femininity, and not wonder (initially) at the suffering that came along with that embodiment.

But of course, it's difficult to live up to fictional narrative, professional make up, personal trainers and flattering camera work, so I inevitably came to a crisis with this identification. It was during this period that I began practicing something I recognize in the theorizing of Jose Muñoz' Disidentifications and bell hooks' "Oppositional Gaze." A character who only appeared in a few episodes attracted my attention: Ensign Ro Laren (her race of people traditionally puts the family name first followed by their given name, as I will discuss in a different context later). It was through Ro and her conflicted relationship to power that I came to have my first counter-identifications with the main protagonists of the series and to some extent the world around me. She was the angry woman, the rebellious daughter, and her effect on me cannot be overstated. In re-watching The Next Generation I was quite surprised to find that she only appeared 8 times over the course of the last three seasons, as I remembered her being an important and integral character on the crew. I suppose this memory is more an account of how important she was to me, instead.

Stories Are Important

In examining and expressing the impact of these stories on my own identity formation it is my hope that I have presented a case study of sorts into the ways stories help us negotiate ourselves and our worlds. Based in these experiences and utilizing critical work of fans and scholars I am attempting to put together an argument that stresses how important these stories are as a site of praxis - the putting into practice ones theories or ideas about the creation of a better world. In the case of the Star Trek franchise this work has been done through the universe's placement as in our future, while in the case of the Doctor Who universe of the final third of this project it is about building our future day by day, aided by sporadic and incomplete knowledge of the future.

Given the widespread circulation of themes, characters and ideas from both of these works it seems safe to say that the praxis enacted by these shows are impacting our culture on a wider scale than just this case study of one person's life, but it is my hope that my own microcosm of experience serves as a point of grounding in the concrete, while I go on to explore the more theoretical. That through my own experience I might show why this argument matters on a wider scale.  Star Trek's praxis is clearly informed by the concerns of the series' time(s) of creation, as I will go on to explore in greater depth, but because of this wide circulation it also informs and interjects into the current discourse; changing the conversation. Therefore, for people like myself who are interested in social justice, this provides an incredibly rich archive to both take from and contribute to as part of our work.